Wednesday, December 1, 2010

One kind of summer weekend happiness

A post luncheon stroll. Nina snapped these a few kilometres from the house in early November. Gippsland, where the country house is nestled, is a quilt of rolling hills and quietly grazing cows.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not all flower arranging and luncheon parties

In glossy country house magazines people perch on the edge of their fountains looking completely relaxed in their pricey gumboots. The photographs never show someone with gritted teeth making a third call to the pump installation man to inquire why the pump was not installed last Tuesday. Or someone riddled with PMT digging up 50 thistles in the paddock by hand.

So, lest I give the impression that developing a run-down cottage on six acres is all flower arranging and luncheon parties, it's time to talk about my project list. Here it is:
Cut and remove fallen tree in field, windbreak for orchard, new water tanks, clear and develop dam/lake, new driveway, landscape and plant front of house, remove trees from orchard area, plant orchard, remove trees in front boundary, plant front boundary, clear, landscape and plant bed behind deck, clear level two trees and plant, trim and remove trees obscuring view, prune Blue Gum, architect plans for deck and house, swales to direct water to lake, new vegetable garden, build BBQ and pizza oven, insulate house, get dock in the paddocks under control, new front fence and gates, new washing line, get creeping grass under control, new woodshed, paint house inside and out, install irrigation, weed and reshape front driveway bed, install gutter guards, install range hood in kitchen, finish herb garden, new compost bins, split pile of wood by the shed, get aerials checked, remove old tin and posts on third level, get roller door remote fixed, get scrap metal taken to recyclers, dismantle old vegetable patch, finish boundary bed.
Calming scented candles help project overload
I've posted about how overwhelmed I felt when I first bought the house. I know it's a 20 year project, but at the beginning, the sheer scale of what needed to be done swamped my brain. Each individual item on the list above is a major project in itself.  This year I instituted a three-project at a time rule and it has worked amazingly well. Instead of spreading my physical and mental effort across multiple projects, I now restrict myself to three.  Nothing new goes on the list until something comes off. Only small one-off tasks can be done outside of the list. It works I think because I make progress more quickly, which gives me more momentum to finish things.  It also limits the number of to-dos cluttering my brain.

Now that I've figured out how to do photo slideshows, I'll post about my three current projects soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Flax, roses and lanterns

Here are the flowers I did for a recent weekend lunch. Pic by Nina. More on the lunch soon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sausage making finale: la sagra della salsiccia* (4)

So, finally to the sausage making. 

Thank goodness that we had Jeanie, a trained scientist, in attendance because someone good at maths had to translate the American quantities for the recipes that we had chosen and adjust them for the amount of meat that we had.  Some of the recipes in the book called for quantities too large for us. Even though we were making only three recipes: classic Italian, pistachio, and fennel, all of our six pairs of hands were needed on deck to chop, grind and measure.

We could have ordered the pork already minced, but we wanted to try out the grinding for ourselves, so ordered it in pieces. We chopped these into smaller chunks and chilled them in the freezer for 30 minutes as per the recipe instructions.

There was great excitement at the first cranking up of the grinder. We had a rosemary-cutting ceremony, to add to the sense of occasion.  The grinding began.

And the grinding continued.  And continued. Then a little cloud settled over the room as it dawned how long it was going to take to grind our seven kilos of meat, which didn't jauntily fly through the grinder as the picture on the box implied. It was slow going and we kept having to stop to remove stringy pieces.

So my trusty food processor was pressed into service and whipped through the grinding at a much better pace. This may have had an impact on the texture of the final sausages, which were very firm. The hand grinder looks beautiful and was great for stuffing the casings but I think I'm going to invest in the meat grinding attachment for my Kitchen Aid for future sausage adventures.

Then we mixed in the ingredients and tested the flavour by cooking a little of the meat in the frying pan.  It was good. 

We weren't entirely sure how to use our saline-packed casings (our recipe book called for dry salt-packed ones), so after having soaked them in lemon water, Stuart bravely stepped in, cut off a length and rinsed it by running  tap water through. The fear of puncturing it proved unfounded, casings are much stronger than they look. We were less assiduous with our rinsing for the other batches and there was no discernible difference in the texture or taste of the final sausages.

Now. I'm not sure that there is a delicate way to broach the subject of stuffing the sausages. I'm preparing you out of love because it doesn't mention this in any of the books I've read: it is phallic.  The knot was tied in the end of the casing, the nozzle was attached to the grinder, the ground meat was churned through and as it nosed its way through the first casing a group of adults literally collapsed laughing on the floor like school children.  I blame the grappa.

Thankfully we had Lizzie to advise on the stuffing technique. She stepped in with a firm hand to make sure that the meat was being packed firmly enough.  We had one person putting the meat into the grinder and turning the handle, and one to hold the casing.

A tip if you are planning to make your own sausages: make sure you remove any stringy pieces from the initial mixture. We did with some batches and not for others and it came through as chewy bits in the final sausages.  Also make sure that you get your meat with at least 20 percent fat. Although this is what we ordered, our meat seemed a little on the lean side.

We cooked up our sausages and enjoyed them with salad, relish and roast potatoes.

We were very proud of our efforts. And stuffed.

*A sagra is an Italian festival. Salsiccia are pork sausages.
You can read the other posts in this sausage making story, here, here, and here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grappa and sausage making: la sagra della salsiccia* (3)

So, there are six of us gathered at the country house ready to make sausages.  Humanely-raised heritage breed pork? Check. Fennel, salt, chili, pepper, red wine, pistachio, coriander, nutmeg, rosemary, garlic? Check. Grinder? Check. Lamb intestines for the sausage casings?  Er, check.

We were all just a little intimidated by the sausage casing, as well as unsure what to do with them. My sausage book gave instructions for casings packed in salt, whereas this wasn't. It sat, resembling a piece of cod speared with plastic.

We put it into a bowl of lemon water and fortified ourselves with a caffe correto, which is a shot of espresso 'corrected' with a shot of grappa.  Our grappa, sourced by Maria's Zio Dino, had the additional romance of being home-made somewhere in a Melbourne backyard.

Special sausage making tip: your sausage making event will be significantly enhanced by adding grappa to the proceedings.

Maria and Stuart had also brought some grappa that they had created from Zio Dino's flavoured with sultanas. I'm not normally much of a grappa girl, it's a little mouth puckering for me, but I really liked this. The sultanas added a sweet roundness.

Maria and Stuart got the recipe for their grappa from a great book called Preserving the Italian Way, by Peter Demaio, an Italian living in Melbourne. It's his quest to preserve authentic Italian preserving techniques. Demaio, who is obviously a character, says, "Essentially any fruit can be preserved in grappa. The basic principle is to pickle the fruit or berries in the grappa and then to pickle yourself with it when you drink it."

Here is his recipe for grapes in grappa:
Wash 1kg of sultana or muscat grapes. Place in a glass jar, add a piece of vanilla, a piece of cinnamon, the skin of one lemon and cover with grappa. Seal and leave one month.

I have digressed a long way from making sausages, but grappa will do that to you.  Newly fortified the courage was plucked to tackle the casings.  I'll get back on topic with actually stuffing them next post.

*A sagra is an Italian festival. Salsiccia are pork sausages.

You can read the other posts about our sagra, here and here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Three kinds of weekend spring happiness

This weekend it really felt like Spring. The sky was blue and the flowers bloomed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A country summer birthday lunch (3)

I wanted to recreate Elena's ragu for my birthday lunch main course. Elena is the mother of my Italian friends Guido and Paolo. Their farm, Petralta in Umbria, was my inspiration for the country house (I'll post about it soon).  I cannot think or write about the food at Petralta without reverting to fawning adjectives. The memory of that food is seared into my soul... and my hips.

Elena's ragu with homemade tagliatelle featured during my first stay at Petralta (with friend Nina) ten years ago.  Following the ragu that night was chicken, zucchini slices and flowers, and sage leaves all battered and fried in pig fat.  Dessert was plum tart. Dinner was washed down with home made wine and a very strong walnut liquor called nocino which Nina and I subsequently became extremely fond of owing to its ability to extend festive energy late into the night.

As part of our strategy of ingratiating ourselves into the family, Nina and I had been allowed into the kitchen to watch dinner preparations. These started at 2pm and ended at 9pm and were punctuated with copious breaks for espresso, gelato and checking the dictionary. Alas, because of the language barrier my recipe for the ragu was annoyingly vague: "add finely chopped onion, garlic, oil, carrot, fresh parsley and another herb we can't pronounce to finely chopped chicken liver." According to Elena, who has been cooking traditional Tuscan food since she was eight, the ragu must be done in stages with much simmering of each.  After the mysterious herb stage was wine and a chicken head. Then tomato puree, dried porcini, and stock, more simmering, then the rest of the chicken offal. The taste? [Insert fawning adjective here].

My plans to recreate Elena's ragu were derailed by my inability to purchase a chicken head.  My naively hopeful request to my butcher for "One chicken head from an organic chicken, preferably a heritage breed please," was unsuccessful. Apparently it's illegal to sell chicken heads in the fair cosmopolitan city of Melbourne.  So, I left with duck legs and duck liver. 

Lacking a proper recipe, my plan was to recreate Elena's stages as best I could while slow cooking the ragu for at least four hours to make sure that the meat had totally melted off the bones. (A trial run the weekend before revealed that two hours was not nearly enough to get that thick ragu texture). Aside from a small panic in hour two about the liver quantities, it turned out fabulously.  I served it with bread and garlic butter (made with home-grown garlic and garlic chives) and parmesan Reggiano.

Dessert was strawberries macerated with sugar and red wine and my home-made french vanilla ice cream. (I've written about that previously, click here if you want ice cream making tips).

We finished with chocolate birthday cake courtesy of my friend Andrew.

It was a great lunch. I'm already planning for this year's one in November.

Read more about the lunch here and here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A country summer birthday lunch (2)

It took me weeks of poring over Australian Gourmet Traveller to plan the menu for the lunch. I wanted food that I could prepare much of beforehand to maximise swanning around on the day.
For hors d'oeuvres I made grissini with rosemary from the garden wrapped in Italian proscuitto. The Gourmet Traveller recipe is here. I served it with a basil pesto and olives stuffed with sun dried tomatoes and one of my favourite champagnes, Veuve Cliquot.

The entree was also really easy. I slow baked ocean trout on a bed of herbs and served it on salad leaves with salsa verde.

The table still looks remarkably respectable given that we'd managed to drink almost a case of Veuve before the entree came out. Well, it was hot. And a birthday!

Monday, August 30, 2010

A country summer birthday lunch (1)

I have winter-itis.  It has rained almost every weekend for months now, which in our drought-stricken country I am grateful for.  But, I am so looking forward to sun and warm breeze. In honour of the turn of season, I thought that this week I would post some photographs from my country summer birthday lunch last November.

I spiffed up the house and the deck with flowers from the garden. Photographs by Nina. So handy to have a friend who is studying to be a professional photographer!

Monday, August 9, 2010

La sagra della salsiccia (2)

Back in December my friend Lizzie and I hatched a plan to have a Sagra della salsiccia (Italian for sausage making festival) at the country house.  Not so much a festival really, but a small weekend gathering.  I researched one possible provider of humanely and sustainably-raised pork (Fernleigh Farms) and Lizzie researched the best cut of meat (shoulder). Then we lapsed into inactivity until a couple of weekends ago when we met for a very long Sunday lunch at Lizzie's (pictured)  for a Sagra planning session with our fellow sausage makers-to be, Maria, Stuart, Matt and Jeanie.

While stuffing ourselves with eight courses of Lizzie's very fine cooking, we divvied up the tasks and are back in action.
I have found us a Gippsland pork supplier an hour away from the country house, The Gypsy Pig.  Michael and his wife raise heritage breeds of pigs humanely and sustainably. He is going to supply us shoulder meat off the bone with 80% meat and 20% fat, which he says is a good ratio for sausages. We are going to mince it ourselves to add to the sense of the occasion.

Michael's pigs range freely outside for the whole of their lives and the piglets stay with their mothers for a full eight to ten weeks.  This is different to the pigs labeled 'bred free range', which in Australia means that piglets are outside with their mothers for three weeks, then spend the rest of their lives inside. If the welfare of the animals that you eat is important to you, check the 'free range' versus 'bred free range' label carefully. Micheal does point out to me that bred free range is still a big step forward in welfare from intensive pork production.

Michael is also going to supply us with the natural casings, which will be lamb's intestines, although these don't come from his farm. Unless you have access to an organic farmer who has direct control over the slaughtering of his or her sheep and thus the by-products, you can't source organic intestines for sausages in Australia. So when you buy a commercial organic sausage it won't have an organic casing (this is allowable under the law which allows five percent of a certified organic product to be from non-organic ingredients).

I also found a great how-to book for home sausage making, which has supplied two of the three recipes we will use.
We will be steering away from the Squirrel Sausage, and the Moose Sausage in lieu of a classic Italian (coriander, black pepper, red pepper and garlic), Pistachio (black pepper, nutmeg, rosemary, and pistachios) and Fennel (black pepper, sweet paprika and fennel seeds).  The fennel recipe is from Mangia Mangia, a website dedicated to preserving traditional Italian recipes, that is well worth a look.

The Festa will be on August 21st, so not long to go!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

So, I just got off the phone from the snake catcher

My favourite description of Australia comes from the late Douglas Adams:
Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner. In fact it's not so much a country as such, more a sort of thin crust of semi-demented civilisation caked around the edge of a vast, raw wilderness, full of heat and dust and hopping things.
Until last weekend my encounters with Australian wildlife had been more Eric Bana (cute, humorous and admired from a distance) than Jack Nicholson. Take this echnidna I met bumbling about his business a couple of weeks ago.

I grew up in New Zealand, where meeting a busload of tourists on a Lord of the Rings tour classifies as a scary wildlife encounter. For most of the twelve years I have been in Australia I've been safely tucked away in the city and never encountered anything remotely dangerous. I have always been particularly bemused by how terrified many Australians are of snakes.  One of my neighbours will not go out and walk in his fields in Summer. I guess growing up  with news reports of innocent old ladies dying from backyard snake bites will do that to you.

My innocent belief that I didn't really mind snakes was undermined on the weekend by the velocity of my screams when I lifted a brick in my shed and found this hibernating fellow.

Piet, part of my new garden support team,  leapt into action  grabbing a large metal pole and waving it around authoritatively, while I even more authoritatively sprinted outside still screaming. The snake happily slumbered on. This is when I found out that killing and snakes only goes one way in Australia. They are protected and you can be fined $5000 for dispatching one from this mortal coil. As I hate killing things I was actually quite happy to hear this.

Because I have a healthy appreciation for the law and because I am part English we adjourned inside for a cup of tea and a fruitless search for a snake catcher.  When I checked later, the snake was gone.

Today I managed to get hold of snake catcher Dave who had a soothing manner and infectious love of snakes (he takes payment by small donation in case you were considering this a possible lucrative career option).

Snake catcher Dave: I'm pretty sure that he would have been a Copperhead. They are a very quiet snake and don't attack.
Me: Oh, good.
Snake catcher Dave: "If he was pretty small he could have been part of this year's litter from February or March.
Me: Oh, OK.
Snake catcher Dave: A snake will usually have about 10 to 15 babies.

Pregnant pause while I imagine 15 baby snakes rampaging around my property.

Snake catcher Dave: He will probably have about four shelter sites that he likes to visit. Your shed will  probably be one of them.
Me: Fine, I guess.
Snake catcher Dave: He'll be attracted to anywhere that he can find skinks, frogs and mice so it's important to keep grass down around the house and mice under control.
Me: Can I expect that there are always snakes around?
Snake catcher Dave: They range over a very large area but you can expect that they will always come through. I live a few hours away but can come out in an emergency. Give me a call if you find one in the house. Occasionally they will squeeze in UNDER A DOOR [emphasis mine] to find mice.

Twin-sized pregnant pause while I consider the new information that snakes can SQUEEZE UNDER  CLOSED DOORS and make urgent mental note to purchase steel draught stoppers and locate snake catcher who lives in the vicinity.

After cheery goodbyes from Dave, I speak to snake catcher Nick. Nick said he didn't get out enough and offered to come  and visit to take a look for the snake and to let me know what I could  do to reduce my risk.  He thoughtfully checked whether I might actually want snakes on the property then regaled me with a story about a wealthy client with a large spa and a $1000 annual rat (chewing through electrics) problem. Nick had innovatively solved the problem by releasing two tiger snakes  that now lived under the spa.  Five years later the snakes had saved $5,000. Everyone was happy, including the snakes.

It sounds like a visit from Nick will be highly entertaining.  I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Luxury basics: Home-made ice cream

One weekend late last year I found myself at the freezer eating ice cream straight from the container. This was a surprise to me as I've never really been into ice cream. But this was different, I had made it myself.  I got over my surprise and ate the whole batch that I'd made for my birthday lunch last year and had to whip up another. I figured that the extra practice would do me good.

You can make ice cream without any special equipment but anticipating many happy ice cream experiences I bought an ice cream attachment for my KitchenAid mixer. It's a bowl that that you freeze for 24 hours before you start. A special paddle churns the mixture against the frozen sides and after about 20 minutes it's the consistency of soft whip. You can put it in the freezer to harden more if it lasts that long.

If you are trying to eat sustainable, healthy and humane food, making your own ice cream is something to consider. I was reminded of this recently when I bought some Maggie Beer (a treasured Australian food icon) Quince and Bitter Almond ice cream. When I checked out the additives (in my guide The Chemical Maze) I found this information about the three vegetable gums used as thickeners in the product:

-407 Carrageenan (Irish Moss). Often contains MSG. Possible links to: asthma, cancer, ulcerative colitis, skin rashes, colon ulcers (do not give to babies or young children).
-410 Locust Bean Gum. Possible links to: abdominal pain, diarrhea, cough in children.
-412 Guar gum (Galactomannan). Possible links to nausea, flatulence, abdominal cramp.

Which leads me onto the fraught subject of cream. Call me old-fashioned but I believe that cream should be just that. Cream.  Most cream you see in the supermarket shelves in Australia has been interfered with with additives like gelatin. You have look carefully for the product marked 'pure cream'.  For my ice cream I used milk and cream from Elgaar Farm in Tasmania. As well as the organic and sustainable angle, what I really like is that I know the products come from one traceable herd and that the farming practices are humane. At Elgaar Farm they do not remove calves at a young age from their mothers and they do not send older cows off to be killed as soon as they stop producing.

If you are interested in making your own ice cream here is a good basic recipe for french vanilla from a favorite food blogger of mine, David Lebowitz (his entertaining blog is well worth a read). I like french vanilla because of the making-your-own-custard component. This leads me to my one ice cream making success tip:   When you are heating up the custard mixture to thicken it before adding it to the cream DO NOT PAUSE THE WHOLE PROCEEDING WHILE IN RAPTUROUS DELIGHT TASTING YOUR CUSTARD FROM THE BACK OF THE SPOON. If it gets too hot the egg starts to cook and go hard and this is, well, not pleasant. You will find yourself at the sink with a sieve trying to get rid of eggy bits. I did this and mine still turned out nicely though.

After the birthday ice cream success, I decided to make a flavoured batch using blackberries from the garden. I cooked up the blackberries with some sugar and made a syrup. Which I stirred through once the ice cream had been churned. It was great. Next time I'm trying David's Mint Chip Ice Cream.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Three kinds of winter weekend happiness

The first snowdrop is out.

The very wet weather meant I didn't need to feel guilty about tea and Australian Gourmet Traveller by the fire.

The grey afternoon light had an old-Dutch-master effect on my cushion.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A pocket of winter cheer

It's Saturday morning and I'm just about to leave the city. I'm looking forward to getting my hands in some dirt. I'll be back on Sunday to share my tips for making ice cream.

Until then, here's a little piece of winter cheer that I took on the deck last weekend.